Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Insight: Holyoke's Morse Code...

Mayor-elect Morse (© RD Photography 2011)
HOLYOKE--One year ago, Alex Morse was preparing for the penultimate finals of his college career.  Like many seniors, he was already looking past that last pesky semester to a career and post-college life.  Like many of those students he was planning to head home and possibly find a job in the community where he grew up.  Morse, however, was not going to be facing a small hiring committee at a consulting firm or office.  His hiring committee would be made up of thousands of his fellow Holyoke residents.

Morse shocked Holyoke’s political establishment by upsetting incumbent mayor Elaine Pluto and setting himself up to become Massachusetts’ youngest mayor.  Since his November 8 victory, Morse has received a glut of invitations, honors, and accolades and faced a “whirlwind” of events, meetings, press interviews and interviews for potential staff in preparation for the January inauguration. “I haven’t really taken a break, yet,” Morse said in an interview with WMassP&I at his campaign headquarters on Route 5 in Holyoke.

Morse is no stranger to politics local or otherwise.  Ten years ago he joined the city’s Youth Commission and served as a student member of the School Committee.  While in high school, he was an organizing member of a high school gay-straight alliance.  While at Brown University, Morse interned in the office of then-mayor David Cicilline working on neighborhood services.  

Holyoke City Hall (wikipedia)
Providence also provided a template for Morse’s ambitions for Holyoke.  Rhode Island’s capital city has faced industrial decline similar to Holyoke, but has managed to resuscitate its urban core in a way most New England cities have not.  However, before Providence's redevelopment, that city had the benefit of being the state capital and, considering its condition at the time, a state embarrassment, which could spur state and civic leaders to action.

The strength of Morse’s bid for the mayor’s had to come as something of a surprise to the Pluta camp.  Early on, Pluta mocked Morse for his age, saying to the Republican that she would debate his education plan when he “graduates from college.”  Other voters simply said, “He didn’t have a chance in hell.”

Morse says his campaign began not only before graduation, but before this year.  During his junior year of college, he spent a semester in the Dominican Republic, during which, in addition to becoming fluent in Spanish, he began seriously thinking about running right out of college.  When he got back to the States was when he began planning in earnest.  He began meeting with people to line up support and raise money.  By the time he announced in January, still not quite a college graduate, it was clear that his opponents would zero in on his age.  

Morse is not the first just-out-of-college graduate to seek political office.  Springfield Ward 2 City Councilor Mike Fenton ran for his seat right of out college against a well-connected scion of a political family who was favored to win early on.

To Morse, his campaign, and apparently the residents of Holyoke, however, his age was not a problem.  “Instead of buying into my opposition’s language” about age, the mayor-elect said he sold his youth as an asset.  Morse, wearing his ever-present colorful “I love Holyoke” button said his campaign portrayed him as somebody with the energy, enthusiasm, digital savvy and new ideas that Holyoke needs to turn itself around.

A candidate declaring his love for the community which he hopes will elect him is probably a campaign tactic older than some centuries-old New England towns.  However, Morse put his whole shoulder into that strategy and instead of coming off tacked on and predictable it translated into a sincerity that resonated with voters of all stripes.

Morse with a voter (Facebook)
One issue that did not become an issue either out front or the behind the scenes in the mayoral race for this blue-collar working class city was Morse’s sexuality.  Morse, who is gay, appeared encouraged that neither his opponent nor voters seemed to give the issue if much thought.  “It was a non-issue,” Morse said noting that he had been out since high school and that, except for some vaguely allusive language in press reports, it was barely a footnote in the campaign itself.  “I have been open and honest about my sexuality since I was 16,” Morse said noting that if that fact mattered at all, it proved that he was prepared to be open and honest about the issues that actually make a difference in people’s lives.  Indeed transparency has been a big part of his transition, thus far.

Nevertheless, Morse did get some financial assistance from the Victory Fund, a national group that advocates the election of gay candidates to elected office.  Indeed, the Victory Fund, in a statement said Morse's credentials were so impressive that "his sexual orientation was almost a non-factor."  In that same vein, Morse notes and the anecdotes and press reports appear to confirm that what made the difference was the people and the campaign on the ground.

Now that he is about a month away from the mayor’s office, Morse’s focus is on the transition and hitting the ground running.  While one committee is planning for the inaugural ceremonies, plans are underway for a transition conference that will be open to public.  A unity breakfast is coming up to bring the city together after the long campaign.  He also started a tumblr site, to add transparency to the process.

Victory Theater (
The Victory Theater, redevelopment of the city’s train station in anticipation of future rail service, and further work on the canal walk.  Better marketing for the city and a streamlined permitting will also be necessary for economic development.

Economic development also appears to be tied to finding a new balance between serving the needs of a poorer population while building a tax base to sustain those and other crucial city services.  Morse, whose degree is in urban studies, looks to greater urban density as part of the solution in addition to incentives that bring young people back into the city.  Even with cosmopolitan Northampton up the road, Morse is undaunted.  “We are much more diverse than Northampton,” he said noting the city’s historic architecture, canals and cheaper property and energy costs.

Morse wants to turn downtown Holyoke into a destination itself.  That, too, will involve bringing more residents into downtown.  He says he has met with Buy Springfield Now, a group that advocates purchasing homes in that city, in order to get ideas for promoting home ownership in Holyoke.  That in turn could develop a broader restaurant or entertainment scene.  “There‘s no where to eat out,” Morse said and that lack in downtown Holyoke continues to push people toward the Holyoke Mall, downtown Northampton or even downtown Springfield.

However, efforts to bolster downtown Holyoke to better compete with downtowns and shopping districts across the region beg to ask questions about how the city can better cooperate with its neighbors.  “We share a lot of the same challenges,” Morse said highlighting Springfield in particular.  Many students in each of the cities’ poorer neighborhoods shuttle back and forth between Springfield and Holyoke facing the same challenges of an urban environment.  He hopes that there will be greater collaboration with and “not just competition” against Holyoke’s neighbors.

Morse's Invitation to the White House (Facebook)
Part of that may also be speaking out on behalf of Western Massachusetts and its communities as a whole.  Unlike Providence, none of Western Massachusetts’ communities are the state’s largest city or capital, of which Providence is both.  “Western Mass needs loud voices  We lack leadership in this region,” Morse said.  On the day of WMassP&I’s interview, news broke that Morse had received an invitation to the White House for a December 13 reception as a guest of President Obama and the First Lady.  Morse intends, if the opportunity presents itself, to speak with the president about Holyoke and the needs and aspirations of cities like his and those in the Pioneer Valley.

Visits to the White House and calls from Deval Patrick, Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren after the election alone offer proof that Morse has already made an impression.  Additionally, he along with Springfield Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and other area political luminaries will host a fundraiser for Warren tomorrow in Springfield.  “The media attention has been intense,” said Morse who has done interviews with blogs, the Boston Globe, Commonwealth magazine and CBS News.

Downtown Provdiece, R.I. (Wikipedia)
Still Morse may have his work cut out for him.  Unlike Providence, where Morse saw urban renewal at work, Holyoke lacks the same investment and commitment by state leaders to invest in massive redevelopment projects.  Providence spent millions uncovering its urban rivers and building a new urban mall.  Both projects have been wildly successful in attracting tourists and residents to downtown with help from the colleges and universities like Brown and Providence College.  On the other hand Holyoke does not suffer from fiscal pressures of the same magnitude as Rhode Island and Providence itself are experiencing.

Further outreach will be crucial, too.  Morse likely spurred some increased turnout among Hispanic voters, in part due to his bilingual campaign, most votes remained in non-Hispanic wards.  When asked how he will continue to connect directly with residents, he says he has gone to the Puerto Rican cultural center and other venues that cater to Spanish-speaking residents.  Many react happily with surprise to see their mayor-elect socializing with his constituents outside carefully choreographed events with community elders.

Still, everything from victory at such a young age and deluge of press and official attentions begs asking questions about ambition.  To this Morse is sanguine, “I’m looking to be a long-term mayor,” he says looking to 8-10 years in office in order to achieve his goals.  Notably he is not closing the door, either.  Perhaps, if he achieves his goals, Morse does not appear to rule anything out.

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